“So, what is, um, this?” The girl, who had only swerved toward my table in order to avoid the gentle but insistent members of The Gideon International handing out copies of the New Testament across from me, gestured to the sign hanging behind my head. Sex Worker Solidarity Society it read, clear in white and red. What was less clear, then and perhaps now, was the meaning and the purpose behind such a society.
My name is Charlie Wright, and I am the second and current president of the Sex Worker Solidarity Society (SWSS for brevity). I mention that I am the second president because we are a new society, indeed the first society of our kind. This means that we have no blueprint for activity and are forging new ground, if you want to be romantic, or muddling along as best we can if you want to be realistic.
The point of us, in a sentence, is to be a focal point and space for sex worker support and sex workers’ rights activity on campus. In practical terms we will be holding meetings and events to facilitate this; for example last year we ran a week-long event with speakers, film showings and an art show.
A question that I often get asked, is why. Why would sex worker’s activism want or need a university society?
First and foremost, we should have a university space for sex workers to organise and gain support because there are sex workers in university. The Student Sex Work Project’s report published in 2015 found that “almost 5% of students have ever worked in the sex industry”. To put this into context, with roughly 8,000 enrolled students at Goldsmiths, that’s around 400 students. Melissa Gira Grant put it succinctly in her book Playing The Whore; “Sex workers’ ability to share information among themselves is essential for supporting all sex workers in negotiating their work”; being able to talk about what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with with other people who are doing it to allows you to discuss and strategize over how to do it best; how to best advertise, how to best provide the service, how to best keep safe, how to best spot common problems and issues and work around them.
With stigma, and the consequences of stigma, comes a blanket secrecy and a need for silence and discretion; it is safer to resolve to work it out alone, without the benefit of others’ knowledge, support, or networks. We at SWSS believe in combatting stigma not only by seeking to fight the way sex workers’ are talked about, thought about, stereotyped and constructed, but also by combatting the effects of stigma; the isolation and danger that comes from being a sex worker without a community and a history of sisters and siblings to draw practical and emotional support from.
Another answer to why, is to be a resource for non-sex workers (civilians, to be less clunky) to learn about and engage with sex workers’ rights; the current reality that sex workers are operating within in the UK; the local and global history of sex workers’ rights activism; the complex intersections that make up the multiple lived realities of sex workers. For many people- perhaps even most- sex work exists as a series of half-understandings, stereotypes and simplifications. Lurid and explicit imagery is accompanied uncritically with temptingly by glossy dichotomies, sensationalising and glamorising both the apparent “high class escort” and the “gross, but pitiable, victim”.
It seems simple and obvious to point out that there is no universal sex worker, there is no universal sex work, that there can be no uncomplicated understanding of a person’s lived reality. Neither the Diary of a Call Girl Belle du Jour nor Criminal Minds’ Drug Using Sex Worker Victim #3 of TV are accurate or helpful depictions of the everyday, mundane lives and needs of sex workers. We at SWSS are seeking to offer a challenge: shed your certainties, beliefs and assumptions about how others’ live. Shed your certainties about the points of view, goals, ideas or positionality of sex workers and sex workers’ rights activists.
The world is not a simple place; the needs, problems, dangers and lives of sex workers are similarly, not simple. Solidarity, therefore, must involve complexity.
“Huh,” the girl muses after patiently listening to my slightly confused but very passionate speech. “I think that’s important. Probably necessary, too.”
The Student Sex Worker Solidarity Society’s first meeting will be on Thursday 20th October, RHB 251, 5pm-7pm.